PUP member and UVF gangster Colin Fulton loses harassment action against Sunday World
EXCLUSIVE: By Alan Erwin
A Progressive Unionist Party member has lost his High Court harassment action over newspaper allegations of loyalist paramilitary involvement.
Even though a judge held today that a series of Sunday World articles caused distress to south Belfast man Colin Fulton, he concluded that publication was reasonable and "a robust expression of press freedom".
Rejecting a claim for damages against the newspaper, Mr Justice Deeny said of its journalists: "I do not consider that their motivation was vindictive but was to expose criminal conduct and wrongdoing."
Mr Fulton, 39, denied ever being a member or leader of the Ulster Volunteer Force or any other paramilitary organisation.
He sued over 28 articles published between August 2012 and January 2014. Some referred to him as a "UVF thug", a "UVF gangster", a "UVF godfather" as well as linking him to involvement in illegality.
Mr Fulton insisted the stories were untrue and had put his life at increased risk from dissident republicans.
The court heard he has received at least six separate warnings from police that he is under threat - four of them coming after the Sunday World began claiming he has a paramilitary role.
Never camera shy: Colin 'Meerkat' Fulton
As part of his case it was stressed that he has no criminal record.
Unemployed for 18 years, he was described as carrying out voluntary community work for the PUP, which he joined in 2010.
During the trial he repeatedly said the articles were lies and had "turned his life upside down". The allegations he emphatically denied included:
- Encouraging boys in his neighbourhood to meet UVF men who then assaulted and tasered them.
- Involvement in the guns trade or running a drinking den near his home in the Village area.
- Involvement in some kind of turf war with Russian criminals.
- Going on six holidays in 2013.
- Being known by the nickname "Meerkat", insisting the first time he heard of it was reading it in the Sunday World.
At first he also claimed the PUP had no real link to the UVF, before admitting the party gave guidance to the paramilitary organisation.
He also denied the UVF was involved in drug dealing, later adding that he was unaware of the grouping carrying out any punishment beatings in the last three or four years.
Those views were at odds with the opinion given by the PSNI to the House of Commons, the judge noted.
Cross-examined about the flying of a UVF flag outside his home in 2012 - the only one on his street - Mr Fulton said it was to mark the organisation's centenary.
He explained that he was referring to the original Ulster Volunteer Force founded before the First World War.
The court also heard of his friendship with a man believed to have received a nine year prison sentence for a machete attack on a Catholic.
In evidence the Sunday World's former Northern Editor, Jim McDowell, told of the personal cost in trying to expose criminals through the newspaper.
He was beaten up outside Belfast City Hall by UVF men.
His colleague, Martin O'Hagan, was murdered by another loyalist paramilitary faction in 2001.
Another senior Sunday World journalist, Richard Sullivan, described an incident in October 2013 where he believed he was being "tailed" by three men after Mr Fulton spotted him.
Ruling on the case, Mr Justice Deeny rejected claims for harassment and breach of Mr Fulton's right to life under the European Convention on Human Rights.
"Having heard the two experienced and courageous journalists concerned I am satisfied that they were acting in good faith in publishing the articles," he said.
The judge held that Mr Fulton had given inconsistent and contradictory answers, with unconvincing denials to many allegations.
"He attended at least five marches attended by and sometimes organised by UVF members," Mr Justice Deeny continued.
Mr Fulton's flying of the UVF flag and association with alleged members of the organisation was also noted.
According to the judge the plaintiff has continued to be prominent as a representative of loyalism in the Village area and at demonstrations.
"I formed the view that he did relish his notoriety, as counsel put to him," he added.
"It is the facts which lead to the threats more than the reporting of facts or allegations made in good faith by experienced journalists."
Acknowledging the plaintiff has never been arrested or questioned about the allegations, Mr Justice Deeny suggested police could choose not to for good operational reasons or a difficulty with witnesses.
"Another possibility is that they or the state authorities are at fault in addressing these alleged paramilitaries and ought to be investigating him and others about these matters," he said.
Pointing out that Mr Fulton opted against suing for damages, he confirmed harassment had not been proven.
The Sunday World articles, he said, "are to be seen as a robust expression of press freedom which the courts have a duty to protect".